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How the Immigration Act of 1965 Changed the Face of America

August 12, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The act put an end to long-standing national-origin quotas that had favored those from northern and western Europe.

When the U.S. Congress passed—and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law—the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the move was largely seen as symbolic.

“The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants,” lead supporter Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-Mass.) told the Senate during debate. “It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

That sentiment was echoed by Johnson, who, upon signing the act on October 3, 1965, said the bill would not be revolutionary: “It does not affect the lives of millions … It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

But the act—also known as the Hart-Celler Act after its sponsors, Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.)—put an end to long-standing national-origin quotas that favored those from northern and western Europe and led to a significant immigration demographic shift in America. Since the act was passed, according to the Pew Research Center, immigrants living in America have more than quadrupled, now accounting for nearly 14 percent of the population.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor with a view of the New York City skyline in the background.

The 1965 Aimed to Eliminate Race Discrimination in Immigration

In 1960, Pew notes, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants were born in Europe or Canada; 6 percent were from Mexico, 3.8 percent were from South and East Asia, 3.5 percent were from Latin America and 2.7 percent were from other parts of the world. In 2017, European and Canadian immigrants totaled 13.2 percent, while Mexicans totaled 25.3 percent, other Latin Americans totaled 25.1 percent, Asians totaled 27.4 percent and other populations totaled 9 percent.

The 1965 act has to be understood as a result of the civil rights movement, and the general effort to eliminate race discrimination from U.S. law, says Gabriel “Jack” Chin, immigration law professor at University of California, Davis and co-editor of The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act: Legislating a New America.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline

President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) as …read more


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